Joelith's Journal

Euro Road Trip #1

Thursday 30th September, 2010

Last December a group of my friends and my partner went on a European driving tour and I've finally gotten around to writing about it . When we went we found very little information on the perils of European driving and though people had obviously done it before we couldn't find many blog posts with tips and tricks. I had a blast and would recommend it to anyone but these are the things you should consider.

- We drove brand new Renault's around. I had a 2009 Megane Berlin Hatchback and Peter drove a Laguna Coupe. Both were excellent cars (okay the Coupe looked a little better than the Hatchback I have to admit). The best thing was that they were brand new (mine had just over 200km on it) and fully insured (I left mine with a scratch on the side and the engine sounding a little bit...broken). For more info: http://www.renaultusa.com/ You cannot underestimate how easy it is to drive brand new cars. No having to worry about breakdowns, bad tires, weird noises coming from the engine etc.

- You need a GPS. I'm serious, I have no idea how tourists got around Europe without a GPS in the past. I used MobileNavigator from Navigon (http://www.navigon.com/site/us/en/mobile_navigato r/iphone). We nicknamed her Nelly. I'll post a review of the GPS in another post. Not all GPS's are the same. Some are better than others. I can say that the Nokia version is shit (sorry Peter). It never worked in the mornings or on a Sunday (just like Peter I suppose) and didn't display the speed.

- You need a GPS with the speed zones. I don't know about the rest of the world, but in Australia the current speed for the road is shown constantly. I just drove from to Canberra to Sydney and the highway speed (110 km/hour) is shown every few kilometres (particularly after an entrance ramp). Don't expect this in Europe. Generally you will get a sign on the entrance to the country that will explain the speed limits (50 for towns, 70 for highways, 100 for motor ways) but good luck remembering that. Worse, it's hard to tell what is a major road and what is a minor road. A GPS with speed signs is invaluable. It will tell you exactly what the speed limit is and save you from getting a ticket. And don't expect to just follow the locals, they're crazy!

- I'll say it again, the locals are crazy! They drive fast, aggressive and take significant risks on the road. For instance, we were driving on a Bosnian road and it was snowing. It was a 90kmh road and I was doing about 70 (as were most people) and then this one car came up behind, overtook me and about 4 other cars. At that moment a truck came barrelling down the other side of the road. The car just made it into the correct side of the road before getting hit. He only got in because every one was madly breaking to let him. You want more proof? A car in front of me in Hungary was overtaking a truck and then all of a sudden the truck started to merge over and almost hit the car. Crazy! Don't follow the locals when they overtake and don't follow the locals when the road condition is poor.

- The style of driving in Europe is a lot different to Australia, especially Canberra. In Canberra people are bad indicators, take forever off the lights and cannot merge properly. The Europeans are lot better at driving and are very courteous. Generally you just need to indicate and people will let you in. The converse applies so be prepared to let people in as soon as they indicate. Our cars had red licence plates (French tourist plates). They are a god-send. People will recognise them and give you a wide berth. I could always tell Peter's car in traffic as it generally had a wide gap between other cars.

- In winter road conditions can get very snowy and icy, however you will very rarely need snow chains and I suggest they are not worth the cost. I used my chains twice, once in the streets of Sarejevo cause we parked on a steep slope and then it snowed and another time up a mountain when we tried to go skiing. And we were caught in Europe's worst winter in ages! They are also a pain to put on if you are unfamiliar with them. I suggest making sure you park on a flat surface over night and then just driving carefully otherwise. The locals will continue to careen around corners regardless of the weather but if you just do a consistent speed they will work out how to get around you.

- If you go in a group of cars (we had 2) then plan where you will meet up at each town. If you haven't booked accommodation then I suggest you agree on a cross-street intersection to meet at. Do not rely on the GPS to get you to centre of the town (e.g.: if you plug in Budapest and don't choose a street the GPS will just take you to street that it thinks is the centre). Different GPS's have different centres so you will not end up at the same point. Don't say let's just meet at the tourist place as there are many of them. A pre-determined street is the best way!

- Don't attempt to convoy behind each other as you will invariably get separated by traffic. And each driver will want to go at their own speed and stop at different points along the way. We learnt this the hard way, but by the end of the trip we had it down pact and the trip was a lot less stressful.

- We did far too many countries in the timeframe we had (13 or so countries in 5 weeks). We did the right thing and looked at Google Maps to determine the distances between towns and had worked out a reasonable timetable (side note: Bing is actually your friend as it has most of Europe, Google has no maps for Romania or below). What we didn't consider is that a 300km drive will take far longer than 3 hours. That works by Australian standards, but European roads (outside of Germany) are generally single lane and you will usually be stuck behind a truck with little hope of overtaking (the locals will try though). So that 300km drive will take more like 4-5 hours. This blew out our entire estimates and meant we were driving far longer than we expected.

I'll post the second part of this post next week. Stay tuned.

The IT Debate: NBN

Tuesday 10th August, 2010

I attended the ACS National IT Debate held at the National Press Conference. Senator Conroy was there as well as the Shadow Minister and a Greens Rep (who was surprisingly coherent). The debate mainly focused around the NBN. I'm still out on whether it's a good idea, though I'm not sure the Liberal policy is any good either. Here my thoughts so far:

  • There is no business plan for NBN Co! That's right, an organisation that is spending 43 billion dollars of your hard earned cash has no business plan on how they will spend it. Worse, the cost-benefit analysis has not been made public. It's not clear what uptake rate they need to achieve the break-even point
  • Given Labour's track record are we sure this is only going to cost $43 billion? Are you telling me that a government run 8 year project is not going to have a single delay or cost blow out. After 8 years, we could have a much heftier bill if the BER and Batt's policies are anything to go by.
  • The one question that both side's of politics couldn't answer is what will we do with all that bandwidth. There answer - 'If you build it they will come'. I understand that companies will find new and innovative ways to use all that bandwidth, but 43 billion dollars needs to have some kind of pre-determined benefit. If they said "We're putting teleconference capability in every school" or "We are building telecommuniting offices in regional and outer suburb areas" or something to that affect then we could determine if it's going to be worth it. But they haven't so we just have to *hope* someone uses all that bandwidth for something other than inventing the next Twitter.
  • Conroy likened the project to building the national highway system. It's an apt comparison as both costs lots of money and probably couldn't have been completed by private companies alone. However, the difference is that we had a clear idea of what people would use the highway for. Interstate commerce, reduction in rail usage, holidays etc. As I mentioned, we aren't that clear on what we will use the NBN for.
  • Conroy also couldn't stop talking about dishwashers. Supposedly in Holland they have these dish washers that can communicate with the local energy companies and determine which has the cheapest price and when and then finish that load of washing then. This he says is an example of what we could use the NBN for. I'm sorry, but if your dishwasher needs 100mbps to communicate with the energy company, then your software engineer should be shot (and told to stop using XML). It also fails to realise that this would also require the energy companies to provide an API to access this information and would also require legislative changes to allow me to change energy companies as needed. The NBN doesn't solve these problems at all.
  • What happens in 10 years when fibre is obsolete? I realise it's a scalable technology but eventually we are going to have to rip it up and replace it. Do we pay the bill again?
  • Is the Liberal policy better? Yes and no. It's not as expensive but doesn't give us the higher speeds. It simply allows competition to continue as normal in profitable areas (capital cities etc) and then grants to ensure the service is provided to everywhere else. It's a far more market-friendly policy and with the right regulation should provide a cheaper network. There will be areas (particularly in the bush) that don't get anything but ultimately that's always been the problem of national systems in Australia.

In the end, I can't work out which policy is better. They both have problems and it's tricky to determine which is best for the future of Australia. $43 billion is a lot of money to spend without a business case and without any clear idea of what we will use it for. What government services will be improved by this? eTax won't have a speed improvement (as it's all local) and even if they worked out how to make a safe web app the bandwidth requirements wouldn't be much more than the average ADSL connection. Let's face it, high bandwidth is only required for video. So whilst bittorrent may be a bit faster can't we just wait a few extra hours for a movie and save all this money and trouble?

Really?

Tuesday 21st October, 2008

Evaluating Javascript libraries at work and I initially decided upon Dojo. It had some nice features, lot's of widgets and some great unit testing stuff. Now that I've actually sat down and started to play with the code I've had to change my mind. Dojo is bloat-ware. For instance, the 'Hello World' tutorial has the following code:

 <style type="text/css">
        @import "ui/javascript/dijit/themes/tundra/tundra.css";
@import "ui/javascript/dojo/resources/dojo.css"; </style> <script type="text/javascript" src="ui/javascript/dojo/dojo.js" djConfig="parseOnLoad: true"></script> <script type="text/javascript"> dojo.require("dijit.form.Button"); </script> </head> <body class="tundra"> <button dojoType="dijit.form.Button" id="helloButton"> Hello World! <script type="dojo/method" event="onClick"> alert('You pressed the button'); </script> </button>

Pretty simple - it just generates a button and when you click it says "You pressed the button". This will load 27 javascript files and take around 2-3 seconds (on my server atleast). What's wrong with:

<button onclick="alert('You pressed the button');">Hello
World</button>

You don't want to know how many files the WYSIWYG editor has to load!

Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Readability

Tuesday 2nd September, 2008

WCAG 2.0 is at release candidate stage and if you're bored already you should probably skip this post! One of the big things about WCAG is that they are attempting to make everything automatically testable. The idea is that you should be able to apply a tool and get an accurate idea of your conformance level. WCAG 1 had too many guidelines that you had to do by hand. Quite a chore when your site has over 30 000 pages.

One of the biggest challenges of WCAG 2.0 is readability. All your content should be written for a lower secondary level (years 7-9). There a number of tools available that you can use to determine your reading level. For instance if I run the tools over this page: http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/ 815327 then I get the following (having stripped out the html tags as they don't count as words):

Dale chall reading grade - Primary (5.6)
Flesch-kincaid grade level - 9.8
Automated readability index - 9.9
Coleman liau index - 12.8
Gunning fog score - 12.6
SMOG index - 9.6

You may know the Flesch-kincaid grade level as that is the one available in Word. As you can see our reading level is too high (but only slightly) in most of the reading indexes (except for the Dale Chall reading grade).

The Flesch-kincaid grade level is defined as 0.39 * average_words_per_sentence - 84.6 * average_syllables_per_word. Research has shown that sentence length is one of the biggest predictors for readability. But here we find a problem: since we are passing in html there a number of elements that should be treated as sentences but don't actually end in a full-stop. Eg: a heading 1 tag will rarely end in a full stop, but for the purposes of this tool it should have one. Ditto for lists, as the style at the ACCC is not to put a full-stop at the end of a list item unless it is actually a full sentence.

So if we add full-stops to the html where needed we get better results:

Dale chall reading grade - Primary (5.4)
Flesch-kincaid grade level - 7.4
Automated readability index - 6.8
Coleman liau index - 12.8
Gunning fog score - 10.1

Now our flesch-kincaid is much better and well within the boundaries of readability.

You'll notice that the dale-chall reading grade hasn't changed much. It is considered to be the most accurate of all reading indexes. It uses a list of 3000 common words (words that will be in the vocabulary of most of the population). If your word is not in there, then it is considered complex and the more complex words you have in a body of text the harder it is to read.

I've modified the code for the php-text-statistics project (as it doesn't take into consideration the html issue and doesn't do the Dale-chall reading grade). I'll hopefully submit this for addition to that project and then everyone can share!

And hopefully that wasn't completely boring to everyone!